Imagine your greatest fear. What was the scariest experience in your lifetime? Unquestionably mine was paddling out at Ocean Beach on a 20 foot + day all by myself. You know something is not right when you are the only one in the water. I found a channel beyond the pounding 6 ft shore break, which I somehow made it past, and sprinted for the outside sandbar between wave sets. Before I knew it I was propelling my board over large mountains of water, ‘scratching for the outside.’ Due to both skill and luck I was able to time my sprint so that no waves crashed on me. That could have easily been death by drowning for yours truly. Quickly grasping the situation I knew I was way out of my league as I kept paddling over the enormous waves. You know a wave is large when it takes you several strokes to get from the bottom over the top. You look back from the top and you see a gaping pit far below. Getting pitched backward would be like getting thrown off the top of a building!
I didn’t stay out long. At the first opportunity I turned around and paddled into one of the monsters. I caught that one wave, and didn’t get off it until I was safely on the beach, still shaking with fear. I didn’t bother paddling back out and would never do it again. I literally thought I was going to die. I’ve dislocated my shoulder several times in regularly punishing overhead to double overhead surf out at Ocean Beach. On separate occasions my board has punctured my back and thigh. People drown there regularly, although surfers not often. Ocean Beach is nasty, powerful, and unpredictable. At that size, to me it was absolutely terrifying.
I recently learned that’s how my daughter feels sometimes. I’m pretty sure she’s got a disorder called Selective Mutism. One out of 1,000 children develop this psychological social anxiety disorder. My wife and I will be meeting with several people from my daughter’s school and the district to discuss her condition this month. At home she is a fairly typical kid, although we thought she’d always been shy around strangers in social situations, other kids included. We were mistaking shyness for fear. Well into first grade now Sabrina still has not spoken to a teacher in her elementary school. The prospect of having to speak to her teacher in front of her peers literally paralyses her with fear. We thought she was just being some kind of combination of shy and stubborn. It turns out she’s really been dreadfully frightened all along, and I feel bad for not having figured it out myself long ago. A big clue was the way she would cry and cling to me as if for dear life the first two weeks of school in kindergarten last year. I literally just thought she was putting up a battle because she simply didn’t want to be in school, not because she was petrified.
There are lots of SM kids whose families never figure out what’s going on with them. Imagine having an untreated and undiagnosed psychological disorder for much of your life. It can be debilitating. The good thing is that with the internet, information is far more readily available than ever before, and diligent health professionals can correctly identify and therefore treat these rare disorders in children. Hopefully someone will read this and be able to identify with a child in own their life who might have SM. In the meantime Sabrina is absolutely showing signs of having less fear among strangers and, in many social situations, no fear at all. This past weekend she ordered food for herself with a waitress for the first time. Yesterday we played soccer next to another father and his son, and there was nothing holding Sabrina back from talking, laughing, and enjoying the experience. Recently she had a playdate with a family friend who has played with her before on several occasions and Sabrina spoke to her. The friend noted that it was the first time she had ever heard Sabrina talk!
My attitude towards Sabrina has literally changed overnight now that I know what is going on with her. I’m going to learn as much as I can about her condition and do whatever I can to help her overcome her fears and anxiety. Like all parents I wish her great happiness and success. It won’t be easy, but at least now we know what we are up against.
Image credit: Vivek Chugh
Andy Falk is a father of two incredible daughters ages born in 2001 & 2003, Skylee
and Sabrina. Andy is very active in the lives of his daughters, from coaching soccer to supporting them during swimming season to just plain doing homework or hanging out. Andy also surfs regularly, bicycle commutes and is a successful Realtor in Marin County, CA. Andy earned his MBA from San Francisco State University with an Internet Marketing concentration, and holds a BA from the University of California at San Diego where he studied and surfed in the 80’s.